I’ve now read three Liane Moriarty books and enjoyed them all, including this latest novel which is probably the funniest so far, and a perfect summer read to take to the beach. Most of the times I take a book or magazine with me to the beach I actually don’t end up reading it, but I was glued to this one.
The novel in many ways is a satirical look at the wellness industry, and mostly takes place at the Tranquillium House Health Spa, a remote health resort run by a former high-powered businesswoman, who has a life-changing heart attack in her office at the start of the book. Then it skips to the nine strangers from various walks of life (technically not all strangers if one is to be pedantic) who converge upon the house for a ten-day retreat with hopes of finding emotional healing or losing weight or both. They include a middle-aged romance writer who hit a personal and career low point; a self-centred gay lawyer who is a self-confessed health resort junkie; a washed-up former football player; a family of three struggling with a recent tragedy; a young couple who are trying to save their marriage; and a harried mother of four whose husband left her for a younger woman.
Once at the resort they all meet Masha, the owner of the Tranquillium House, a beautiful and charismatic Russian ice queen full of Zen proclamations and some… unconventional ideas about successful treatments. These are not immediately obvious in the first few days; a compulsory vow of silence ruffles some feathers but otherwise it’s your usual meditation, walks, delicious healthy smoothies and massages. Little do the guests know that Masha is about to put them through a wild experimental ride they definitely didn’t sign up for.
I’d hesitate to describe Nine Perfect Strangers as a thriller though it has a shape of one, or a locked room Agatha Christie mystery if you like. In truth it takes a while to get going as we spend chapters with each of the characters and learn their perspective (and their often hilariously wrong impressions of each other). There are hints here and there that the guests should really be bolting for the door, but the lack of action and, well, anything happening much might grate on some.
This is not a criticism from me though, because Moriarty has a real gift for nestling inside her damaged characters’ heads and bringing them to life in an engaging manner through observations and thoughts that feel specifically their own. The novel’s innate breeziness and playful satirical tone also don’t gloss over some real pain and grief, mixing light and dark with expert deftness. Before the end, there’s a cascade or revelations and soul-searching, and the book is imbued with a generous sense of optimism about people’s ability to heal, even if their relationships can’t always be saved.
P.S. My favourite funniest bit was easily the chapter where Frances the romance writer has a surreal dream that borders on fourth-wall breaking and Moriarty poking fun at her own novel.
P.P.S. Russians do make the best villains.